One of the most prominent changes we see while travelling across Nepal these days is the presence of earth movers, bulldozers, tipper trucks and excavators. They dominate the highways, gouge out riverbeds, claw at mountainsides and rip through forests.
There may be many planners in Singha Darbar who claim to be the drivers of development. But out in the hinterland, we know who is really making development ‘happen’.
Ask Nepalis in the districts what they want the most, and the answer will be “a road”. For them ‘road’ is synonymous with ‘development’, and they are going to get them by any means possible. If anyone still had any doubts, Kathmandu is no longer in charge, thanks largely to the devolution of decision-making in the new Constitution.
The road-building spree is now fuelled by local governments, which get to spend money quite indiscriminately. Yet, with three-fourths of the population now having access to some kind of road, public demand for any old road is now being superseded by an insistence on black-topped roads that will not be washed away in the next monsoon. Quality is slowly taking precedence over quantity.
Roads are a two-way street. They may be designed and built to take local produce to market, but roads also bring the market to remote villages. This can have a huge negative impact on the local economy if competitiveness is lost. Roads can also become an incentive to produce more, or disincentive to pack up and leave for the city or go abroad.
Socio-economic and environmental studies are conducted before a road is built, but there is little to show that these recommendations have been studied, much less implemented. Roads may take local trout, strawberries and vegetables to the market, but they also enable human trafficking and the spread of HIV, and push land prices beyond the reach of the poor.
On 13 May, Himalayan TV, Dooshan, Facts and V-chitra gave out excellence awards to projects that met new, higher standards. One surprise award went to the restoration of the historic Pim Bahal neighbourhood of Patan.
The second surprise was that no one was awarded in the large project category: sending a message that there was plenty of room for improvement. Such due diligence to select winners will in future ensure that the quality of construction will improve. As the saying goes, when everyone stays average, the average goes down – this is what has long plagued the infrastructure sector in Nepal.
Dozers are literally changing the face of Nepal. Mountains are no longer the barriers they were, which may be the necessary first step toward prosperity through connectivity. However, this process must ultimately deliver the kind of prosperity that can come with easier movement of value added goods and services. The cost of transport must go down over time.
To attain such results, maintenance, management and upgrading of infrastructure must be a continuous process. Roads can not only pay for themselves, they can generate huge revenue in the longer term. Building infrastructure is not expenditure, as is currently perceived, but an investment.
Many construction projects today are undertaken through a flawed public procurement regulation that awards the contract to the lowest bidder. This has resulted in many destructive projects and a waste of taxpayers’ money. In future, many projects will be designed, resourced and implemented by the private sector. Competition will help improve things in general.
The government can collaborate with the private sector, as we are seeing in hydropower, hotels, schools and hospitals. There could even come a time when development partners will buy back well constructed social infrastructure built by the private sector as their contribution to Nepal’s development.
During a recent trip up the Trisuli River, it was heart-warming to see dozers expanding the road to Kerung. Dozers are for development, it just depends on who is driving them.